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Taking Care of My Inner Child

Back in the 1990s, when I was going through intensive psychotherapy, I had an experience that was both humorous and highly instructive. My therapist remarked to me, towards the end of a particularly difficult session, that he had the impression that I was not taking good care of my inner child—that part of me that remained a scared, angry little boy even though I was a man in his fifties. He suggested that I purchase a doll that would symbolize that sensitive part of me that was still in turmoil, and tend to its needs and try to make it feel better. So I took his advice and stopped off at a Toys R Us and spent the better part of an hour searching the shelves for just the right Stevie doll. After much deliberation I settled on a little fellow who I thought might do the trick. I made my purchase and headed out to the parking lot. As I write this little tale I can still feel the biting wind that chilled me as I threw the shopping bag in the trunk of the car and hopped into the driver’s seat to warm up on that fateful winter day.

Several weeks later my therapist inquired about the progress I was making in the caretaking of my doll. In that instant I had one of those moments of awareness that propels a quantum leap in our personal development. I realized that the bag with the doll was still in the trunk of my car. The immensity of my ineptitude stunned me as I visualized little Stevie frozen to death from my parental neglect. As a caretaker I had failed miserably. Even to one as dense as I, this situation was a perfect representation of how I had neglected, over many decades, to be attentive to my own emotional needs as I expended great amounts of energy taking care of others.

I am happy to report that I immediately retrieved Little Stevie and spent the next month making sure that he was warm, well fed, and much loved. I even went back to the store and bought him some companions so he would not feel as friendless as I felt throughout much of my early years. He and his three companions now reside in the night stand next to my bed and we all sleep together secure in the knowledge that I had learned my lesson and was applying it to my own daily maintenance. Because I came to realize how scared that little boy really was until I learned to take care of him, I bought the three scariest looking dolls in the store. They are now his best friends and I no longer live with the mortal fear that plagued me for more than half a century. It comforts me to know that I can do a reasonably good job of protecting myself from the slings and arrows that are occasionally hurled in my direction. My inner child no longer worries that he might be, on too many occasions, a fatherless child.






Bloodlust

For my eighteenth birthday my Uncle Cecil, whose glory days were lived in the armed forces during World War II, bought me a rifle as a right of passage into manhood. I still remember how impressed I was by this Savage .223 sniper weapon with a four-power scope. I can still smell the gun oil and feel the smoothness of the barrel and the textured wooden butt. I kept the rifle in my apartment on West End Avenue and, fortunately, never used it in anger or self-defense.

About ten years later, in one of the darkest periods of my life, when I was struggling with a challenging marriage, two jobs and an unfinished dissertation, I took the rifle out to Pennsylvania where my parents ran a summer camp. On numerous occasions I loaded the extra long shells into the rifle and went out hunting. I shot at everything that moved—chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and woodchucks were all fair game. I can tell you that it was a scary activity because, when I sighted my prey, I trembled with fear and excitement before pulling the trigger. The report of the rifle was very loud and it bucked in my hands. Even scarier was walking over to see what had happened to my target. Usually what I saw was a lot of blood and ripped flesh. The worst feelings came when I discovered that I had only wounded my victim and I had to shoot it a second time. It was, indeed, an exercise in blood lust.

As I looked back years later during my psychotherapeutic process I realized that I had engaged in that gruesome activity because, for brief periods of time, it made me feel alive and powerful. For someone who was struggling with a life-long bout of depression and feelings of worthlessness, those hunts provided me with the same kind of jolt one gets from putting a cattle prod on a dead carcass. There was no lasting joy, only a feeling that I had engaged in something primal and dirty. I had not killed those animals so I could eat. I only killed them for sport, if you can call it that.

I share this with you because I know that many of my friends and acquaintances have never fired a rifle and torn the flesh from a living creature. You are not missing a thing. It didn’t make me more of a man. It didn’t make me a better person. It just put me in the same club as those who do not respect the sanctity of life and the right of every living thing to spend its days without having to worry about some angry son-of-a-bitch blowing your head off.  Whenever I hear of politicians proudly toting their guns for all to see I know exactly where they are coming from and feel very sorry that they need to do that. I also worry about their ability to be keepers of the public trust. There are better ways to enhance one’s life. I know how much emotional trouble they are in and must remind myself that I am not qualified to throw stones.




Happy Family

I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the middle of the 20th century. At that time it was a place shared by a large number of well educated, reformed Jews who were enjoying their second-generation status as well as a sizable population of first-generation Puerto Rican families striving to find a place for themselves in a less-than-tropical urban environment. Every Sunday my family went out for dinner. Our search for food took us out of our stately apartment building on West End Avenue and 90th Street and up to Broadway where one could find a Chinese restaurant on every other block in either direction. As we approached the corner we needed to make a communal decision to go south to Cantonese or Shanghai cuisine or north to Mandarin and Szechuan. Occasionally we went to Isaac Gellis or Starks’s, but mostly it was Chinese. One of my favorite destinations was Lingnan Restaurant on the east side of 93rd Street because they had a giant mural by Dong Kingman in their lobby. His painting of a large junk sailing under the Brooklyn Bridge was a most attractive visual prelude to the exoticism of the forbidden cuisine we were about to explore.

One of the most intriguing items on the top of Column A, on the left-facing page of the copious menu, was a dish called Happy Family. It consisted of beef, chicken, and shrimp and all kinds of Asian vegetables we could not imagine eating at home. Its title and description promised to fulfill whatever culinary desire one could have. Imagine, if you will, a panoply of delectable ingredients immersed in a deliciously warm white sauce. My eye always paused at that place as I perused the left side of the menu (Column B on the right contained dishes of a lesser degree that no self-respecting Jewish Prince would even consider ordering). So many years later I am amused to revisit that scene because, on that one line, Lingnan’s menu promised me what I secretly wished for my family — happiness, contentment, and satiation. Fifty years later, without bitterness or resentment, I can finally relish the relationship between Happy Family, the culinary potpourri, and Happy Family, the oxymoron. My parents tried very hard to make a happy home in which to raise two precocious boys, but were plagued by an emotional stain that had been passed down to them from too many generations of unhappy people. Lingnan Restaurant is now long gone and so is my need for the protection of loving parents; thankfully, late in life, I finally learned to do a good job of parenting myself.

The mural “East Meets West” that Kingman painted for the Lingnan Restaurant was rescued, restored and subsequently donated to the Brooklyn Public Library by Roslyn and Eugene Gamiel in 1997. The mural is now installed in the Library’s Multilingual Center. One of these days I will haul myself out to Brooklyn and reacquaint myself with Dong’s homage to New York prepared for the flood of childhood memories that are certain to surface. Without doubt, I will stop off at a Chinese restaurant on the way back, but, no matter how good the cuisine, it will not compare with that legendary dish that beckons me even now. If I have piqued your interest, you can see the forty year-old Kingman and his wife eating at a table in front of the mural in the May 14, 1951 issue of Life magazine, page 100.  

No Degrees of Separation  

Life is, most certainly, a fascinating adventure. I enjoy getting up each morning wondering what will happen today. Who will I meet? What will I learn? What challenges will test my abilities? I eagerly anticipate the myriad connections and intersections that will be revealed to me as the day progresses.  

Case in point:   Several years ago I was asked to serve on the search committee for the Dean of Humanities and the Arts. Of the several candidates we invited to be interviewed on campus there was a rather brilliant and compassionate linguist from the University of New Haven who also happened to be blind. He gave a wonderful interview and afterwards I was his host on a tour of the campus. His name was Robert Greenberg and it was my pleasure to chat with him as I escorted him around. We talked a great deal about academic issues facing the college but we never got around to talking about our families.  

As part of some larger plan, that issue was revealed to me some time later as I happened to be channel-surfing and came to 60 Minutes on CBS. I tuned in just in time to watch a segment on a young lad named Jay Greenberg who may well turn out to be one of the great musical geniuses of the 21st Century. This young fellow, then 14, had already written a host of serious music and was an advanced student at Juilliard where he was being shepherded to an amazing career. The London Philharmonic had already recorded his fifth symphony and it appears that his creative process is exactly what Mozart enjoyed (or suffered with)--the music just flows full blown from his internal musical fountain.  

As I go through my day there is always an underlying question relative to the people whose orbits cross mine--What is the degree of separation between us? This relationship remains a mystery relative to the people who just pass me by, often like images on a dancing TV screen. But, every once and a while I interact with someone and discover that we are, in fact, related by a certain number of degrees. Well, that night the Six Degrees of Separation meter went to ONE when the 60 Minutes interviewer went to young Jay's home. The audience was introduced to his Israeli-born mother and his blind....wait a minute...."I know this guy! That's Bob Greenberg, the fellow I escorted around the North Campus." Suddenly, the story went from being about THEM to being about US. The story is always about us, we just may not know it at the time.  

If people everywhere started thinking about the relatedness of all the planet’s inhabitants we might live in a better world. Thanks to John Donne, every time I hear the bell toll I know it tolls for me.  

2008 Post-log: Robert Greenberg did not get the deanship and moved on with his life.  Currently, here at CCNY, we enjoy the stewardship of Dean Fred Reynolds who does a wonderful job of facilitating our educational process. He also plays the piano, but, believe me, he ain't no Mozart…or Greenberg.  

2010 Post-log: Robert Greenberg is now the acting Dean of Arts & Sciences at Hunter College and Fred Reynolds was invited to be executive vice president of the University of Cincinnati, a school more than twice the size of CCNY and willing to pay handsomely for his expertise. Jay Greenberg is reading music at Peterhouse, Cambridge and I am still at CCNY waiting for a new search committee to pick our next dean.    

Battered Citizen

I was standing in my office the other day when one of my colleagues asked me how I was feeling. I paused for a moment and realized that I was not all right, that there was, indeed, something quite wrong with me—I was way too stressed. When I thought about what was bothering me I realized that it was not just one event that was causing my distress, it was eight years of aggravation and abuse. One would expect that a Liberal like me would be joyous at the prospect of an Obama presidency, but, instead, I am depressed and exhausted. There is, apparently, a limit to the number of times one can be lied to, insulted, and violated before it takes its toll on you. I have been holding my breath until I was blue in the face; my soul bordered on hopelessness waiting to be rescued from the hands of the inept and the immoral. I thought about it for the rest of the day until I realized that I was suffering from BCS—Battered Citizen Syndrome.

Since the day Justice O’Connor decided to make a wise cracking, foul-mouthed frat boy the leader of the free world my ability to cope with deceit and cruelty has been tested mightily. While watching the 2001 inauguration I realized that we as a nation were in trouble when two different benedictions invoked the blessing of “Our Lord, Jesus Christ.” There was something decidedly un-American about that day and the anti-American spirit has continued unrelentingly. I am firmly convinced that when W swore to uphold and defend the Constitution that bright and sunny day he had no idea what he was promising. I am certain he never read the document nor understood what it represented and demanded of him. We have all come to fully appreciate what stupidity and ignorance can do when placed together in high office.

Like an abused spouse I, and all sentient citizens of this great land, have been exposed to an endless assault on our sensibilities. The list of insults is long indeed, beginning with Bush v. Gore. We love our country, but have watched as it has been turned into a fascist state that little resembles the ideal the founders envisioned. My head reels with the memory of people and events that have helped to pummel me into a state of numbness. Here are just a few of my personal favorites that will live in infamy: Kathryn Harris, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, 9/11, the Downing Street Memo, Shock and Awe, the Bush Doctrine, Mission Accomplished, IEDs, Tony Blair, Karl Rove, Hurricane Katrina, Brownie, No Child Left Behind, NSA wiretapping, Tora Bora, Wanted Dead or Alive, Alberto Gonzales, Harriet Meiers, Samuel Alito, Diebold, WMD, Candoleeza Rice, Privatizing Social Security, the Wall Street Bailout, The Surge is Working, The Coalition of the Willing, Faith-based Initiatives, Guantanamo, Water Boarding, and Torture, yes, Torture—that is what we have been subjected to here on Broadway and out there in the heartland. Maddeningly, one drop at a time, each of us has had to endure daily assaults on our hearts and minds.

No one need remind me that much blame lies on both sides of the Congressional aisle, but I will not feel safe and secure until the Bush Crime Family has left the seat of power and a well-educated, well-spoken young African-American has been given a chance to see if there is some way to help us dig our way out of the hole into which we have all fallen. There are still 64 days left to this nightmare and I still cringe whenever I turn on the news expecting to be battered just one more time. The lunatics have been running the asylum for what seems like a very long time and the time to set us free is long past due.

Sendai

How many times in my life have I seen some terrible event unfold somewhere else in the world and think it has nothing to do with me? John Donne would be so disappointed that I never truly took his Meditation Number17, written so very long ago, to heart. Compounding the situation is my awareness of degrees of separation, but I often do not seek enough data to make a proper calculation of the distance. You would think by now my first reaction would be “Why does the bell toll for me?” I am embarrassed to admit that I am not there yet. I still need more spiritual growth to bring me to that place where I can feel that all men are my brothers. I can only hope that some day I will come to fully realize that there is no They, only Us.

Well, today I got some data that brings this week’s catastrophe right to my doorstep. About a year ago I became acquainted with a lovely young musician from Japan by the name of Aya Nishina. This talented lady, so gentle and kind, is beautiful inside and out, and so very bright and talented besides. She is a treasured addition to my coterie of acquaintances!

Today I discovered that Aya comes from Sendai, the city that was flooded by the great tsunami. She is spending her waking hours finding out if her friends and family are all right. Suddenly, her distress has become mine, and I can only imagine by half what she must be feeling today. I pray that she will not receive news of personal loss or suffering. While waiting for her next email I have been researching her native city and have discovered that the famous song by Rentaro Taki, Kojo NoTsuki, describes an ancient castle whose ruins stood in Sendai. To honor all the wonderful students I have had from Japan I put that tune in my piano instruction book a few years back. More recently I made an arrangement of that song in an attempt to show my students how highly chromatic harmonies could accompany that simple, plaintive tune. The poignant sadness inherent in that song seems more appropriate this week than ever before.

If my arrangement is no cool enough for you, check out “Japanese Folk Song” from the 1967 album Straight, No Chaser of Thelonius Monk.

The Question of Race

America has been struggling with its race issues for more than four hundred years.  It is a wound that will not heal. It occupies our headlines on a continuing basis. The fact that “We the People” elected a man of color as our president shows how far we have come since the slavers started plying the waters of the Atlantic, and yet we still have so very far to go.

My journey has certainly been an interesting one as well. I am just old enough to remember “Whites Only” bathrooms in the south and even the occasional lynching and scary KKK rallies in the Movietone Newsreels at my local theater. I was coming into my early adulthood as the Civil Rights Movement came into full swing, and I have also lived long enough to see the face of the college I attended so long ago change hue.

Recently, the Executive Committee of the Faculty Council, on which I sit, has been discussing the newly proposed admission standards and their implications for the racial and ethnic balance at the college. Thursday we hosted a visit from the wonderful Maudette Brownlee who shared with us the history of the SEEK Program and the grand purpose it has addressed. So, it is not surprising that when I was going through my basement library this afternoon and found my Microcosm from 1962 it dawned on me that here was evidence of my race-relations history and that of the college. As I started browsing the graduate pages it became clear that something worth quantifying was contained within these pages, so I got a pencil and paper and started counting. Here are the results:

CLAS—733 graduate pictures

African-American                  35
Asian                                   10
Others                                 688

Engineering—256 graduate pictures

African-American                  0
Asian                                   4
Women                                2 nice Jewish girls
Others                                 250

Education–-110 graduate pictures

African-American                  2
Asian                                   0
Others                                 108 (88 women)

These numbers speak volumes about the world I inhabited in my first twenty-one years. They also explain why I have had to make some major adjustments in my racial attitudes as the faces of the student body and faculty changed so significantly over my 45 years of teaching. It also explains why I was so excited and entranced by the exoticism of the Korean beauty I met ten years ago and who now shares my name, bed, and board.

Stephen Jablonsky
February 2009